Key Differences Between LPNs and RNs

The nursing profession plays a vital role in healthcare. Nurses provide care and assistance to patients in medical settings under the direction of physicians and advanced practice registered nurses. They monitor patients, administer medications, and assist with daily living activities. If you are considering a career in nursing, two options you may be deciding between are becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a registered nurse (RN). While both are meaningful careers that involve helping others, there are some key differences between LPNs and RNs.

Education Requirements

One major difference between LPNs and RNs lies in the education requirements. To become an LPN, you must complete a 12-18 month LPN diploma program. These programs are offered at community colleges and technical schools. They focus on teaching basic nursing skills and medical knowledge. The coursework covers topics like anatomy, physiology, nutrition, medical procedures, and more. In contrast, RNs must complete either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. ADN programs take 2-3 years to complete. BSN programs take 4 years. RN programs include all the coursework that is required for LPNs plus more advanced topics. This additional coursework prepares RNs for a broader scope of practice.

Licensure Process

The licensure process also differs between LPNs and RNs. After graduating from either an LPN diploma program or an ADN/BSN program, a student must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) exam to earn their license. LPN candidates take the NCLEX-PN exam. It tests their competency in basic nursing skills. RN candidates take the more advanced NCLEX-RN exam to demonstrate knowledge of complex illnesses, prioritization methods, leadership principles, and the nursing process. Due to the higher competency standards RNs must meet, their road to licensure is more rigorous.

Scope of Practice

With the advanced education and clinical training RNs receive, they have a much wider scope of practice compared to LPNs. The RN license allows nurses to perform comprehensive patient assessments, coordinate patient care, develop nursing care plans, change wound dressings, administer IV medications, operate medical equipment, and more. Without direct supervision, RNs can monitor patients and make critical decisions about any changes in their condition. LPNs primarily work under the guidance of RNs and doctors. They focus on basic nursing tasks like measuring vital signs, changing bedpans, reporting status changes to the care team, setting up IV drips, collecting samples for testing, and monitoring stable patients. The scope of practice for LPNs is limited by state regulations and their supervised status.

Career Advancement Prospects

Earning an RN license also opens up greater long-term career prospects. RNs have the credentials needed to pursue advanced nursing positions with more responsibility and higher salaries. Common career advancement options include becoming a specialized nurse practitioner (NP), certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), nursing educator, or clinical nurse specialist (CNS). These advanced practice registered nursing roles require a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. For LPNs, the career ladder is much shorter. Experienced LPNs may transition into teaching positions to instruct other LPNs. But the RN license is needed for most nursing leadership, research, or advanced practitioner roles.

Work Environments

You will also discover some differences in common work settings between LPNs and RNs. Due to their training, LPNs mainly find jobs providing basic care in residential care facilities and long-term care centers. They assist elderly and chronically ill patients with their medications, perform glucose tests for diabetics, change wound dressings, and help patients with bathing or eating. In hospitals and ambulatory care clinics, LPNs work under RNs assisting with routine care needs. RNs across all healthcare environments care for a highly diverse patient population with many medical and trauma-related issues. Their blend of clinical expertise and leadership competence allows them to coordinate care teams in ERs, operating rooms, intensive care units, labor and delivery wards, outpatient medical clinics, and other healthcare facilities.

Job Outlook and Salaries

Current job outlook projections reveal more promising prospects for RNs compared to LPNs too. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment for LPNs will only grow by 9% from 2020-2030, which is about as fast as the average across all occupations. All types of RN roles are forecasted to have growth rates between 20-30% during the decade. Far more job openings will exist for RNs. Greater demand for RNs also leads to higher earning potential. LPNs earn median annual salaries around $48,000 per year. Meanwhile, the median salaries for RNs range from $75,000-95,000 depending on experience and specialization. RNs can expect much faster salary growth over their career as well.

Key Takeaways

In summary, while LPNs and RNs both provide meaningful nursing care, RNs complete more extensive training and hold a wider range of responsibilities. They can treat complex health issues, take on leadership roles, and further specialize their career. Although the LPN pathway requires less time and money, it results in more limited job possibilities. When weighing an LPN vs RN career, those eager to gain advanced expertise in healthcare and enjoy more job options are often best suited for pursuing an RN license. The extra effort pays dividends through exciting work challenges, the ability to join interdisciplinary medical teams, higher pay, and opportunities to advance into prestigious nursing roles.

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